Dealing with Russia as It is, Rather Than as We’d Want It to Be

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a recent video conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Courtesy of Commons/CC BY 3.0

Policy towards Russia needs to be guided by the brutal realities of Vladimir Putin’s policies, rather than by wishful thinking.

The main occupant of the Kremlin is visibly bored. This was on clear display during his rather turgid, Brezhnev-like delivery of the yearly address to the Russian Federation Assembly at the end of last month. For almost an hour he mechanically recited a variety of statistics, aimed at convincing the audience that life in Russia will get better for ordinary families – all mainly based on pledges that the electorate will only be able to verify many years from now. President Vladimir Putin is undoubtedly aware that, domestically, his regime has little new to offer to the country. When it comes to real wages, standards of living, corruption, even average life expectancy, all indicators show negative trends. And the obvious solution – reform – is out of the question, as it would endanger the regime itself.

Putin did, however, come alive when his speech finally touched upon foreign issues. The world stage is the arena that excites him. Suddenly, he was in his element – issuing threats regarding unspecified ‘red lines’ that Russia will not tolerate being crossed, berating the evil West (with a reference to Kipling’s Jungle Book), peddling bogus disinformation narratives and trumpeting the strength of the Russian armed forces. Magnanimously, he stopped short of promising a new invasion of Ukraine.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a ‘to be expected, nothing to write home about’ performance by the Russian leader. After all, the Russian minister of defence has announced a return to the barracks of the bulk of the Russian military units that massed near Russia’s borders with Ukraine earlier in April, and whose visible presence has kept Ukrainians and the international community on edge. In addition, there are clear prospects for the first Biden–Putin summit, which the Russian leader has so patently been craving for. Surely, those not residing in the Russian Federation can all relax? Tempting as it may be, taking this option would be ill-advised.

The Spoiler-in-Chief

President Putin is today the unquestioned spoiler-in-chief of the international order, and unfortunately he has the capacity to negatively impact the lives of hundreds of millions of people, both inside and outside Russia. He has a solid record of aggressive behaviour towards neighbouring countries, including Estonia, Georgia and Ukraine, as well as malign activities against key competitors – most notably the US. His regime has shown consistent hostility towards international institutions – most obviously NATO, but also the EU, the European Court of Human Rights and the OPCW – and disdain for international agreements and law.

Revelations of current or recently discovered misdeeds perpetrated by Russian government agents or proxies – all clearly carrying the Russian president’s seal of approval – keep piling up. The Czech Republic was obliged to ask many Russian diplomats to leave following the uncovering of evidence of a de facto state-sponsored terrorist act on its soil back in 2014. Countries including Italy, the US and Bulgaria have been exposing aggressive spying or hacking operations with growing frequency. Even the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, felt compelled to disclose that Moscow was behind the failure of his country’s negotiations with Western countries. In general, the moment a new crisis develops somewhere in the world – whether it be in Belarus, Myanmar or, most recently, Chad – one can count on Russia getting in on the act with the clear purpose of destabilising the situation even further. With each passing month, its negative role in the Syrian tragedy comes under closer scrutiny, including through first-hand accounts from former international officials, the latest being the former director of the OPCW.

Many of these malign acts or activities clearly involve risk-taking. Their consequences aggravate Russia’s already difficult relations with other countries or organisations. They also defy the normal logic of promoting one’s own national interests – regardless of positive or negative intentions. How does one explain, for example, the decision to ban a number of high-ranking European officials, including the president of the European Parliament, as a response to sanctions levelled at Russia over human rights abuses? The man in the Kremlin simply does not seem to care about relations with the EU, leading in turn to a predictable reaction from EU institutions.

One of the key reasons for his behaviour is that he is not inhibited by institutional checks and balances in Russia. He has more or less destroyed them during his tenure. Even during the communist era there was some semblance of collective responsibility: Khrushchev’s brinkmanship during the Cuban missile crisis helped to convince his Politburo comrades that as a leader he could not be trusted, while Brezhnev had to fight hard to secure a vote in favour of the invasion of Afghanistan. This is no longer the case today. Moreover, Putin has developed a wafer-thin skin when it comes to criticism, even from abroad – a sign of a very fragile ego.

A True Look at the Man

This matters a great deal. Clearly, we cannot hope for a meeting of minds with the Russian president on matters of democracy, human rights, good neighbourly relations and international law. But we still try to comfort ourselves with the notion that rational thought governs Putin’s actions. Clever decision-makers and opinion-shapers write, say or at least whisper that Putin would not cross any lines that would bring Russia into direct conflict with NATO. But is this assumption justified? As the Polish philosopher Tadeusz Kotarbinski once put it, ‘reason fully flourishes under the guard of freedom, while freedom prospers under the guard of reason’. These conditions are obviously not met by Russia as it is today.

Putin genuinely believes in his historic mission to ‘make Russia great again’. If one were to ignore the dubious role of the Soviet Union, and subsequently Russia, in European history over the past 100 years, this goal may even be considered legitimate. But it is difficult to ignore it, particularly for Russia’s neighbours inhabiting Europe’s ‘bloodlands' – they do not want to wake up one day in a ‘grey zone’ between Russia and the West.

For a clearer understanding of the man who rules Russia, one should take a closer look at Putin’s historical role models. These include Stalin, Felix Dzerzhinsky – the sinister founder of the Soviet Union’s secret police – and, if one believes interviews given by Nikolai Patrushev – the Russian president’s closest aide – Ivan the Terrible. The legacy of these murderers is all too visible and applicable in Russia today: opposition leader Alexei Navalny is fighting for his life in a penal colony. His movement is outlawed, while lawyers, journalists and doctors are arrested just for performing their professional duties. People who take part in demonstrations are picked up from their homes after being identified by artificial intelligence face-recognition systems pioneered in China. This is the nightmare vision of Orwell’s 1984, rather than that of Kipling’s didactical fables, the Just So Stories, being recreated in real life. Dissent is no longer tolerated, and even political deception is not practiced any more: the regime’s mask has been taken off. No wonder that Russian citizens claim to fear their government more than death.

Having people like Stalin as his role models also strongly suggests that Putin does not consider himself bound by conventional notions of truth and credibility. In this tradition, a great leader sets his own standards for fact-checking, and can change them at will if his interests require it. The obsessive manner in which President Putin talks about Ukraine, jumping from one unfounded accusation to another – that it is a fascist state, an artificial country, full of Russophobes and so on – while professing great affection for the Ukrainian people, is a prime example of this alternative world.

And that is not all. Thanks to his military and civilian advisers, Putin has formed his vision of the world on the conviction that a global conflict is already upon us; therefore, any means are justified to fight one’s corner. Society has to be mobilised against external and internal enemies: a bizarre list of ‘unfriendly states’ was even formalised in a decree, a truly ground-breaking contribution by Russia to international diplomatic practice. According to the grim paradigm of besieged fortress-Russia created by the Kremlin, money needs to be spent on offensive weapons systems and on propping up brutal despots such as Alexander Lukashenko in neighbouring Belarus, rather than on hospitals, roads or an effective vaccination programme against COVID-19.

It is high time to acknowledge that the West is dealing with a leader who is bored by domestic politics, driven by a big but touchy ego, dreaming of his huge role in history, progressively emboldened by the short-term successes of his brinkmanship, and unchained from the restrictions of political, legal and moral accountability. And because the country he governs is Russia, this is a potent recipe for an escalatory, confrontational policy. This is even more the case if all the power to implement such a policy is vested in one man who is convinced of his infallibility and who has a misguided sense of mission.

Should we give in to panic or fear? Absolutely not. The West has plenty of tools to deter or push back successfully against the threats posed by a risk-taking Kremlin. But these threats need to be spelled out quickly, without ambiguity. Neutrality in this confrontation (recently described in one Polish publication as the ‘buffer state’ temptation), or even passivity, are not acceptable choices for any European state. Actions designed to impress upon Putin that his irrational behaviour could have unpalatable consequences need to be taken now, before any ‘perfect’ longer-term strategies are developed.

Robert Pszczel is currently a Senior Fellow at the Casimir Pulaski Foundation in Poland. A former Polish diplomat and NATO official, he headed the NATO Information Office in Moscow until 2015.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


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